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Reflections on the Chaconne: performance practice

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Title : Reflections on the Chaconne: performance practice
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Reflections on the Chaconne: performance practice

I put up the John Williams recording a while back. When it came out it seemed to me to be a really valid approach to the piece. It trimmed away the excess additions of the Segovia transcription and had a crisper rhythmic approach and even added a few ornaments here and there. But listening to it now I have to admit that about halfway through, when he gets to the restatement of the original harmonies just before the major section (right around the 6:23 mark), I started to chuckle. Yes, it seemed so incongruous to me that after so much of the piece without a shred of a trace of an ornament, suddenly he decides to add quite a few.

John Williams is a very great guitarist and he is the performer whose wonderful recording of all the "lute" music of Bach made it truly part of the repertoire. But frankly, while a technical marvel and a very solid interpreter, when it comes to the Chaconne he is not very creative. If you are going to adopt Baroque performance practice then you should do it in a comprehensive way, not adding it like whipped cream and a cherry on top. That reminds me a bit of the old guitarists' interpretive standby: anytime you have a passage that is repeated you either do it ponticello or tasto for contrast. This is one of the Segovia quirks that has mercifully disappeared from most interpretations. But slapping in ornaments in one tiny section is not very much more profound.

Don't get me wrong, Segovia was a great artist and a great player of Bach, but he was certainly not a model of Baroque performance practice. John Williams represented a considerable advance in the guitar world's understanding of Bach. But listening to a selection of other performances on guitar, about the best that one can expect, it seems, is a technically solid if rather dull delivery. Here are a couple of examples by John Feeley and Ben Verdery.

So even early on I found myself attracted to performances on the Baroque lute instead of the guitar. Here is a fairly early one by Hopkinson Smith and right from the first chord we encounter a different sensibility.

The most recent Baroque lute version is by Thomas Dunford and he takes us a step further with looser rhythms and some interesting arpeggiations.

One of the most interesting things about the Chaconne is how it tends to reveal the musical personality of the performer--it is a kind of test of your character as an artist. Some of the most interesting performances are found on the harpsichord. Here is an early one by Gustav Leonhardt:

What I really like about this version is the free use of ornaments. In the opening theme, for example, he does mordents on the two A melodic notes that begin each half of the theme. I like this because when I was working on the piece the other day and thinking about how to begin it I came up with two ideas: first, to fill in the third in the first chord, adding an E between the D and F. Then adding a mordent on the next A. This was, I hasten to say, before I listened to the Leonhardt!

But for a really zingy performance let's listen to the very recent one by Jean Rondeau. From the video it looks like he recorded it in his garage:

UPDATE: Just to bring it full circle, the most creative interpreter of Baroque music on guitar seems to be Leo Brouwer. Before he injured his index finger, cutting short his performing career he did an interesting version of the Chaconne:

And guess who he studied Baroque performance practice with in Amsterdam back in the late 1960s? Yep, Gustav Leonhardt.

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